Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer|
Singer and songwriter Jeff Whitlow of Neel and Old Barn Band drummer Leverette Blankenship during a rehearsal for their Montgomery performance. The country group will perform on the lawn of the governor's mansion Jan. 12 from 6 to 9 p.m. for Gov. Bob Riley's Boots and Bar-B-Que Inaugural Kick-Off party.
Ready for Riley's inaugural party
Local songwriter whips out a winner for ticket to Montgomery
By Ronnie Thomas
firstname.lastname@example.org · 340-2438
NEEL — Songwriters know they're in a hit-and-miss business.
While all their tunes might not become chart busters or even recognizable outside their studios, every now and then a little ditty will open doors to unexpected ventures.
That's what happened to Neel's Jeff Whitlow and the Old Barn Band. Because of a song called "Headin' to Montgomery Again," which Whitlow wrote and sang to honor Gov. Bob Riley on his 62nd birthday at a campaign fundraiser in Decatur, the band is headin' to Montgomery.
The hard-core country group will perform under a tent on the lawn of the governor's mansion Jan. 12 from 6 to 9 p.m. for Riley's Boots and Bar-B-Que Inaugural Kick-Off party. Riley will take the oath of office to begin his second term three days later.
Organizers for the Riley Boots and Bar-B-Que fundraiser at City View Farms on Oct. 5 invited the band to perform. Whitlow had enough time to knock out his tribute tune. As Riley capped off the party with a speech, supporters came on stage and presented the governor a birthday cake and a pair of boots.
"His wife had already left and taken a seat in the audience. She came back on stage and helped us sing the last chorus," Whitlow said. "They told us they loved the song and to keep our calendar open for January. I thanked them for the kind words. I thought that would be the end of it."
But on Nov. 14, he got a surprising e-mail from Kate McCormick, Riley's fundraising manager. It said the governor wanted her to book the group for the kick-off party.
Whitlow, lead singer who plays rhythm guitar, and the other six band members, aren't taking the gig lightly.
They were working hard Wednesday night at Whitlow's barn studio on Danville Road. They are Phillip Hughes and David Woodard, rhythm guitar, both of Decatur; Mike Thompson, keyboard, of Hartselle; Leverette Blankenship, drums, of Priceville; Porter Dutton Jr., lead guitar, of Moulton and Wayne Reburn, lead guitar, of Cullman. Ricky Moebes of Decatur is engineer.
And if anyone thinks they're not ready, their playlist includes 62 songs, sprinkled with hits by just about every major country star. They surged from one tune to another: "Set 'Em Up, Joe," "Georgia on a Fast Train," "Do You Believe Me Now?"
They also pitched in a few requests from the audience that are not on their list, like Tom T. Hall's "A Week in a Country Jail" and Elvis Presley's last hit, "Way Down."
"It's all for fun anyway," said Reburn. "That's why I'm in this band. It's fun and I like this kind of music."
All are experienced musicians who have spent time with other bands.
"Mike and I were with 'Subject to Change' for eight years," said Dutton. "We had a lot of fun with that name. Sometimes when we were being booked, a guy would ask, 'Now what's the name of the band?' We'd say it's 'Subject to Change.' And they'd say, 'But what's the name of the band?' "
Blankenship, the oldest member at 63, played throughout the 1960s, '70s and '80s before taking a sabbatical. He played in numerous bands, including "The Shades of Night" and "The Bachelor's Four."
Thompson, who resembles J.D. Sumner when he gets down on bass, and Reburn have more than 20 years with "The Natchez Trace Band" of Decatur. Hughes still rolls with "Sister Luck," a Decatur band that covers 1970s and '80s rock tunes, "Country Gold" of Elora, Tenn., and, on occasion, with the "Sophisticated Swingers" of Decatur.
Dutton, one of the original members of the Old Barn Band, said that playing at the governor's mansion is definitely different for the group.
"During the summer, we've toured all around, Guntersville, Fort Payne and Madison," he said. "We always have great audiences, but this one in Montgomery, well, this might be a more elite group."
That doesn't bother Reburn, the youngest member at 41. Of all those songs to choose from, he said, "We might not do them all right, but we know them. And we'll do them good enough they won't know the difference."
And Whitlow jokingly added, "We've fooled a lot of people already."
1963 mansion visit
Only two of the members have visited the mansion. Hughes went as a fourth-grader at Riverside Elementary School in 1963 and Thompson as a fourth-grader at Woodmeade Elementary in 1972. During that time span, the scenery didn't change much as the Wallaces — either George or Lurleen — were governors.
The band's spouses will accompany them and Blankenship's wife, Faye, said she looks forward to "a once-in-a-lifetime experience.' "
Whitlow said the band will begin its performance with a Merle Haggard classic, "Ramblin' Fever," because "it's an up-tempo song that everybody knows and will set the tone for the whole show."
And about that catchy tune that got the boys to Montgomery. It's out on CD but Whitlow says that folks who want it can do better than buying it.
"All they've got to do is go to our Web site, jeffwhitlowcounty.com, and download it."
And it gets no better than that out in the country.
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